She recruited Facebook friends to save Gulf Coast's hermit crabs.
When park ranger Leanne Sarco saw oil-covered hermit crabs on the Louisiana beaches, she started her own project to clean and save them.
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After asking local friends to pitch in, Sarco turned to Facebook and put out a call to the world. People soon began to arrive, strangers who came to help, some even sleeping on her couch for weeks.Skip to next paragraph
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"It almost feels like they're friends," Sarco says of the volunteers. "It was really nice to connect with people like that after thinking no one really cared about the wildlife aspect of [the oil spill]. It really saved me from quitting."
Sarco's project is "inspiring," says Doug Inkley, a senior scientist at the National Wildlife Federation in Reston, Va. It also fits into the larger picture of citizen volunteer groups doing what they can to rescue neglected wildlife in the Gulf, either directly or by raising money, Mr. Inkley says.
"It's very encouraging [that] people care so passionately ... whether it's a little crab or a big sea turtle," he says. "We have to recognize all these organisms are part of the whole ecosystem, and the hermit crab is just as important."
Sarco grew up in New Orleans, about a 2-1/2-hour drive north of Grand Isle, a remote fishing village of 1,500 people where the state park is located and where she now lives. She remembers spending time as a child at a nature center, where she watched as injured animals were coaxed to recovery.
Her first batch of volunteers in June were "disaster tourists," curiosity seekers who just wanted to check out the blackened sand dunes. She persuaded them to grab a pail and start collecting crabs.
On a Monday afternoon in August, Sarco led a small group along the shoreline where, clad in waders and clutching pails, they bent to gather up hundreds of hermit crabs, recently washed ashore and hidden inside shells coated with oil. The beach reeked of petroleum.
The group crossed the dunes to a tower once used as a concession stand that now is headquarters for Sarco's operation. Here hundreds of collected crabs are placed on absorbent fabric.
One by one, their outer shells are lightly scrubbed with dishwashing detergent. The insides of their shells are cleaned with a cotton swab. The crabs then are placed in donated fish tanks.
After only about 30 minutes in the tanks, the crabs slowly return to life. They crawl atop each other and move toward biscuit crumbs Sarco sprinkles into the water.
The next day they are delivered to the inland saltwater marsh and released.
Most coastal scientists say the oil is so embedded in the beach that it will be there for decades. Yet Sarco is already seeing her volunteer numbers start to dwindle, which she suspects is a result of people assuming the problem has been solved as it slips away from news media attention.
She plans for the hermit crab project to continue into next year – or as long it takes. "I don't see how I can [do] ... anything different from that," she says.